The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book XI.

I. — The Lion.1

Some time ago, a sultan Leopard,

By means of many a rich escheat,

Had many an ox in meadow sweet,

And many a stag in forest, fleet,

And (what a savage sort of shepherd!)

Full many a sheep upon the plains,

That lay within his wide domains.

Not far away, one morn,

There was a lion born.

Exchanged high compliments of state,

As is the custom with the great,

The sultan call’d his vizier Fox,

Who had a deeper knowledge-box,

And said to him, ‘This lion’s whelp you dread;

What can he do, his father being dead?

Our pity rather let him share,

An orphan so beset with care.

The luckiest lion ever known,

If, letting conquest quite alone,

He should have power to keep his own.’

Sir Renard said,

And shook his head,

‘Such orphans, please your majesty,

Will get no pity out of me.

We ought to keep within his favour,

Or else with all our might endeavour

To thrust him out of life and throne,

Ere yet his claws and teeth are grown.

There’s not a moment to be lost.

His horoscope I’ve cast;

He’ll never quarrel to his cost;

But then his friendship fast

Will be to friends of greater worth

Than any lion’s e’er on earth.

Try then, my liege, to make it ours,

Or else to check his rising powers.’

The warning fell in vain.

The sultan slept; and beasts and men

Did so, throughout his whole domain,

Till lion’s whelp became a lion.

Then came at once the tocsin cry on,

Alarm and fluttering consternation.

The vizier call’d to consultation,

A sigh escaped him as he said,

‘Why all this mad excitement now,

When hope is fled, no matter how?

A thousand men were useless aid, —

The more, the worse, — since all their power

Would be our mutton to devour.

Appease this lion; sole he doth exceed

The helpers all that on us feed.

And three hath he, that cost him nought —

His courage, strength, and watchful thought.

Quick send a wether for his use:

If not contented, send him more;

Yes, add an ox, and see you choose

The best our pastures ever bore.

Thus save the rest.’ — But such advice

The sultan spurn’d, as cowardice.

And his, and many states beside,

Did ills, in consequence, betide.

However fought this world allied,

The beast maintain’d his power and pride.

If you must let the lion grow,

Don’t let him live to be your foe.

1] The fable of the young Leopard in the Bidpaii collection resembles this.

II. — The Gods Wishing to Instruct a Son of Jupiter.2

For Monseigneur The Duke Du Maine.

To Jupiter was born a son,3

Who, conscious of his origin,

A godlike spirit had within.

To love, such age is little prone;

Yet this celestial boy

Made love his chief employ,

And was beloved wherever known.

In him both love and reason

Sprang up before their season.

With charming smiles and manners winning,

Had Flora deck’d his life’s beginning,

As an Olympian became:

Whatever lights the tender flame, —

A heart to take and render bliss, —

Tears, sighs, in short the whole were his.

Jove’s son, he should of course inherit

A higher and a nobler spirit

Than sons of other deities.

It seem’d as if by Memory’s aid —

As if a previous life had made

Experiment and hid it —

He plied the lover’s hard-learn’d trade,

So perfectly he did it.

Still Jupiter would educate

In manner fitting to his state.

The gods, obedient to his call,

Assemble in their council-hall;

When thus the sire: ‘Companionless and sole,

Thus far the boundless universe I roll;

But numerous other offices there are,

Of which I give to younger gods the care.

I’m now forecasting for this cherish’d child,

Whose countless altars are already piled.

To merit such regard from all below,

All things the young immortal ought to know.’

No sooner had the Thund’rer ended,

Than each his godlike plan commended;

Nor did the boy too little yearn

His lesson infinite to learn.

Said fiery Mars, ‘I take the part

To make him master of the art

Whereby so many heroes high

Have won the honours of the sky.’

‘To teach him music be my care,’

Apollo said, the wise and fair;

‘And mine,’ that mighty god replied,

In the Nemaean lion’s hide,

‘To teach him to subdue

The vices, an envenom’d crew,

Like Hydras springing ever new.

The foe of weakening luxury,

The boy divine will learn from me

Those rugged paths, so little trod,

That lead to glory man and god.’

Said Cupid, when it came his turn,

‘All things from me the boy may learn.’

Well spoke the god of love.

What feat of Mars, or Hercules,

Or bright Apollo, lies above

Wit, wing’d by a desire to please?

2] This title does not exist in the original editions. It appeared for the first time in the edition of 1709. The original heading to the fable is “For Monseigneur,” &c.

3] To Jupiter was born a son. — Jupiter here is Louis XIV., and his son is the Duke du Maine to whom the fable is addressed. The duke was the son of Louis and Madame de Montespan. He was born at Versailles in 1670; and when La Fontaine wrote this address to him he was about eight years old, and the pupil of Madame de Maintenon, his mother’s successor in the affections of the king.

III. — The Farmer, the Dog, and the Fox.4

The wolf and fox are neighbours strange:

I would not build within their range.

The fox once eyed with strict regard

From day to day, a poultry-yard;

But though a most accomplish’d cheat,

He could not get a fowl to eat.

Between the risk and appetite,

His rogueship’s trouble was not slight.

‘Alas!’ quoth he, ‘this stupid rabble

But mock me with their constant gabble;

I go and come, and rack my brains,

And get my labour for my pains.

Your rustic owner, safe at home,

Takes all the profits as they come:

He sells his capons and his chicks,

Or keeps them hanging on his hook,

All dress’d and ready for his cook;

But I, adept in art and tricks,

Should I but catch the toughest crower,

Should be brimful of joy, and more.

O Jove supreme! why was I made

A master of the fox’s trade?

By all the higher powers, and lower,

I swear to rob this chicken-grower!’

Revolving such revenge within,

When night had still’d the various din,

And poppies seem’d to bear full sway

O’er man and dog, as lock’d they lay

Alike secure in slumber deep,

And cocks and hens were fast asleep,

Upon the populous roost he stole.

By negligence, — a common sin, —

The farmer left unclosed the hole,

And, stooping down, the fox went in.

The blood of every fowl was spill’d,

The citadel with murder fill’d.

The dawn disclosed sad sights, I ween,

When heaps on slaughter’d heaps were seen,

All weltering in their mingled gore.

With horror stricken, as of yore,

The sun well nigh shrunk back again,

To hide beneath the liquid main.

Such sight once saw the Trojan plain,

When on the fierce Atrides’5 head

Apollo’s awful anger fell,

And strew’d the crimson field with dead:

Of Greeks, scarce one was left to tell

The carnage of that night so dread.

Such slaughter, too, around his tent,

The furious Ajax made, one night,

Of sheep and goats, in easy fight;

In anger blindly confident

That by his well-directed blows

Ulysses fell, or some of those

By whose iniquity and lies

That wily rival took the prize.

The fox, thus having Ajax play’d,

Bore off the nicest of the brood, —

As many pullets as he could, —

And left the rest, all prostrate laid.

The owner found his sole resource

His servants and his dog to curse.

‘You useless puppy, better drown’d!

Why did you not your ‘larum sound?’

‘Why did you not the evil shun,’

Quoth Towser, ‘as you might have done?

If you, whose interest was more,

Could sleep and leave an open door,

Think you that I, a dog at best,

Would watch, and lose my precious rest?’

This pithy speech had been, in truth,

Good logic in a master’s mouth;

But, coming from a menial’s lip,

It even lack’d the lawyership

To save poor Towser from the whip.

O thou who head’st a family,

(An honour never grudged by me,)

Thou art a patriarch unwise,

To sleep, and trust another’s eyes.

Thyself shouldst go to bed the last,

Thy doors all seen to, shut and fast.

I charge you never let a fox see

Your special business done by proxy.

4] Abstemius.

5] Atrides. — Atreus, or Atrides, king of Mycenae, and grandfather of Agamemnon. He caused his brother Theyestes to banquet on the flesh of his own children. After the repast, proceeds the story, the arms and heads of the murdered children were produced to convince Theyestes of what he had feasted on; and at the deed “the sun shrunk back in his course.”

IV. — The Mogul’s Dream.6

Long since, a Mogul saw, in dream,

A vizier in Elysian bliss;

No higher joy could be or seem,

Or purer, than was ever his.

Elsewhere was dream’d of by the same

A wretched hermit wrapp’d in flame,

Whose lot e’en touch’d, so pain’d was he,

The partners of his misery.

Was Minos7 mock’d? or had these ghosts,

By some mistake, exchanged their posts?

Surprise at this the vision broke;

The dreamer suddenly awoke.

Some mystery suspecting in it,

He got a wise one to explain it.

Replied the sage interpreter,

‘Let not the thing a marvel seem:

There is a meaning in your dream:

If I have aught of knowledge, sir,

It covers counsel from the gods.

While tenanting these clay abodes,

This vizier sometimes gladly sought

The solitude that favours thought;

Whereas, the hermit, in his cot,

Had longings for a vizier’s lot.’

To this interpretation dared I add,

The love of solitude I would inspire.

It satisfies the heart’s desire

With unencumber’d gifts and glad —

Heaven-planted joys, of stingless sweet,

Aye springing up beneath our feet.

O Solitude! whose secret charms I know —

Retreats that I have loved — when shall I go

To taste, far from a world of din and noise,

Your shades so fresh, where silence has a voice?

When shall their soothing gloom my refuge be?

When shall the sacred Nine, from courts afar,

And cities with all solitude at war,

Engross entire, and teach their votary

The stealthy movements of the spangled nights,

The names and virtues of those errant lights

Which rule o’er human character and fate?

Or, if not born to purposes so great,

The streams, at least, shall win my heartfelt thanks,

While, in my verse, I paint their flowery banks.

Fate shall not weave my life with golden thread,

Nor, ‘neath rich fret-work, on a purple bed,

Shall I repose, full late, my care-worn head.

But will my sleep be less a treasure?

Less deep, thereby, and full of pleasure?

I vow it, sweet and gentle as the dew,

Within those deserts sacrifices new;

And when the time shall come to yield my breath,

Without remorse I’ll join the ranks of Death.8

6] The original story of this fable is traced to Sadi, the Persian poet and fabulist, who flourished in the twelfth century. La Fontaine probably found it in the French edition of Sadi’s “Gulistan; or the Garden of Flowers” which was published by André du Ryer in 1634.

7] Minos. — Chief judge in the infernal regions.

8] For some remarks upon this fable see Translator’s Preface.

V. — The Lion, the Monkey, and the Two Asses.9

The lion, for his kingdom’s sake,

In morals would some lessons take,

And therefore call’d, one summer’s day,

The monkey, master of the arts,

An animal of brilliant parts,

To hear what he could say.

‘Great king,’ the monkey thus began,

‘To reign upon the wisest plan

Requires a prince to set his zeal,

And passion for the public weal,

Distinctly and quite high above

A certain feeling call’d self-love,

The parent of all vices,

In creatures of all sizes.

To will this feeling from one’s breast away,

Is not the easy labour of a day;

’Tis much to moderate its tyrant sway.

By that your majesty august,

Will execute your royal trust,

From folly free and aught unjust.’

‘Give me,’ replied the king,

‘Example of each thing.’

‘Each species,’ said the sage, —

‘And I begin with ours, —

Exalts its own peculiar powers

Above sound reason’s gauge.

Meanwhile, all other kinds and tribes

As fools and blockheads it describes,

With other compliments as cheap.

But, on the other hand, the same

Self-love inspires a beast to heap

The highest pyramid of fame

For every one that bears his name;

Because he justly deems such praise

The easiest way himself to raise.

’Tis my conclusion in the case,

That many a talent here below

Is but cabal, or sheer grimace, —

The art of seeming things to know —

An art in which perfection lies

More with the ignorant than wise.

‘Two asses tracking, t’other day,

Of which each in his turn,

Did incense to the other burn,

Quite in the usual way, —

I heard one to his comrade say,

“My lord, do you not find

The prince of knaves and fools

To be this man, who boasts of mind

Instructed in his schools?

With wit unseemly and profane,

He mocks our venerable race —

On each of his who lacketh brain

Bestows our ancient surname, ass!

And, with abusive tongue portraying,

Describes our laugh and talk as braying!

These bipeds of their folly tell us,

While thus pretending to excel us.”

“No, ’tis for you to speak, my friend,

And let their orators attend.

The braying is their own, but let them be:

We understand each other, and agree,

And that’s enough. As for your song,

Such wonders to its notes belong,

The nightingale is put to shame,

And Lambert10 loses half his fame.”

“My lord,” the other ass replied,

“Such talents in yourself reside,

Of asses all, the joy and pride.”

These donkeys, not quite satisfied

With scratching thus each other’s hide,

Must needs the cities visit,

Their fortunes there to raise,

By sounding forth the praise,

Each, of the other’s skill exquisite.

Full many, in this age of ours, —

Not only among asses,

But in the higher classes,

Whom Heaven hath clothed with higher powers, —

Dared they but do it, would exalt

A simple innocence from fault,

Or virtue common and domestic,

To excellence majestic.

I’ve said too much, perhaps; but I suppose

Your majesty the secret won’t disclose,

Since ’twas your majesty’s request that I

This matter should exemplify.

How love of self gives food to ridicule,

I’ve shown. To prove the balance of my rule,

That justice is a sufferer thereby,

A longer time will take.’

’Twas thus the monkey spake.

But my informant does not state,

That e’er the sage did demonstrate

The other point, more delicate.

Perhaps he thought none but a fool

A lion would too strictly school.

9] This fable is founded upon the Latin proverb Asinus asinum fricat.

10] Lambert. — This was Michael Lambert, master of chamber-music to Louis XIV., and brother-in-law to the Grand Monarque’s other great music man, J. B. Lulli, who was chapel-music master.

VI. — The Wolf and the Fox.

Why Aesop gave the palm of cunning,

O’er flying animals and running,

To Renard Fox, I cannot tell,

Though I have search’d the subject well.

Hath not Sir Wolf an equal skill

In tricks and artifices shown,

When he would do some life an ill,

Or from his foes defend his own?

I think he hath; and, void of disrespect,

I might, perhaps, my master contradict:

Yet here’s a case, in which the burrow-lodger

Was palpably, I own, the brightest dodger.

One night he spied within a well,

Wherein the fullest moonlight fell,

What seem’d to him an ample cheese.

Two balanced buckets took their turns

When drawers thence would fill their urns.

Our fox went down in one of these,

By hunger greatly press’d to sup,

And drew the other empty up.

Convinced at once of his mistake,

And anxious for his safety’s sake,

He saw his death was near and sure,

Unless some other wretch in need

The same moon’s image should allure

To take a bucket and succeed

To his predicament, indeed.

Two days pass’d by, and none approach’d the well;

Unhalting Time, as is his wont,

Was scooping from the moon’s full front,

And as he scoop’d Sir Renard’s courage fell.

His crony wolf, of clamorous maw,

Poor fox at last above him saw,

And cried, ‘My comrade, look you here!

See what abundance of good cheer!

A cheese of most delicious zest!

Which Faunus must himself have press’d,

Of milk by heifer Io given.

If Jupiter were sick in heaven,

The taste would bring his appetite.

I’ve taken, as you see, a bite;

But still for both there is a plenty.

Pray take the bucket that I’ve sent ye;

Come down, and get your share.’

Although, to make the story fair,

The fox had used his utmost care,

The wolf (a fool to give him credit)

Went down because his stomach bid it —

And by his weight pull’d up

Sir Renard to the top.

We need not mock this simpleton,

For we ourselves such deeds have done.

Our faith is prone to lend its ear

To aught which we desire or fear.

VII. — The Peasant of the Danube.11

To judge no man by outside view,

Is good advice, though not quite new.

Some time ago a mouse’s fright

Upon this moral shed some light.

I have for proof at present,

With, Aesop and good Socrates,12

Of Danube’s banks a certain peasant,

Whose portrait drawn to life, one sees,

By Marc Aurelius, if you please.

The first are well known, far and near:

I briefly sketch the other here.

The crop upon his fertile chin

Was anything but soft or thin;

Indeed, his person, clothed in hair,

Might personate an unlick’d bear.

Beneath his matted brow there lay

An eye that squinted every way;

A crooked nose and monstrous lips he bore,

And goat-skin round his trunk he wore,

With bulrush belt. And such a man as this is

Was delegate from towns the Danube kisses,

When not a nook on earth there linger’d

By Roman avarice not finger’d.

Before the senate thus he spoke:—

‘Romans and senators who hear,

I, first of all, the gods invoke,

The powers whom mortals justly fear,

That from my tongue there may not fall

A word which I may need recall.

Without their aid there enters nought

To human hearts of good or just:

Whoever leaves the same unsought,

Is prone to violate his trust;

The prey of Roman avarice,

Ourselves are witnesses of this.

Rome, by our crimes, our scourge has grown,

More than by valour of her own.

Romans, beware lest Heaven, some day,

Exact for all our groans the pay,

And, arming us, by just reverse,

To do its vengeance, stern, but meet,

Shall pour on you the vassal’s curse,

And place your necks beneath our feet!

And wherefore not? For are you better

Than hundreds of the tribes diverse

Who clank the galling Roman fetter?

What right gives you the universe?

Why come and mar our quiet life?

We till’d our acres free from strife;

In arts our hands were skill’d to toil,

As well as o’er the generous soil.

What have you taught the Germans brave?

Apt scholars, had but they

Your appetite for sway,

They might, instead of you, enslave,

Without your inhumanity.

That which your praetors perpetrate

On us, as subjects of your state,

My powers would fail me to relate.

Profaned their altars and their rites,

The pity of your gods our lot excites.

Thanks to your representatives,

In you they see but shameless thieves,

Who plunder gods as well as men.

By sateless avarice insane,

The men that rule our land from this

Are like the bottomless abyss.

To satisfy their lust of gain,

Both man and nature toil in vain.

Recall them; for indeed we will

Our fields for such no longer till.

From all our towns and plains we fly

For refuge to our mountains high.

We quit our homes and tender wives,

To lead with savage beasts our lives —

No more to welcome into day

A progeny for Rome a prey.

And as to those already born —

Poor helpless babes forlorn! —

We wish them short career in time:

Your praetors force us to the crime.

Are they our teachers? Call them home, —

They teach but luxury and vice, —

Lest Germans should their likes become,

In fell remorseless avarice.

Have we a remedy at Rome?

I’ll tell you here how matters go.

Hath one no present to bestow,

No purple for a judge or so,

The laws for him are deaf and dumb;

Their minister has aye in store

A thousand hindrances or more.

I’m sensible that truths like these

Are not the things to please.

I’ve done. Let death avenge you here

Of my complaint, a little too sincere.’

He said no more; but all admired

The thought with which his speech was fired;

The eloquence and heart of oak

With which the prostrate savage spoke.

Indeed, so much were all delighted,

As due revenge, the man was knighted.

The praetors were at once displaced,

And better men the office graced.

The senate, also, by decree,

Besought a copy of the speech,

Which might to future speakers be

A model for the use of each.

Not long, howe’er, had Rome the sense

To entertain such eloquence.

11] La Fontaine got the historical story embodied in this fable from Marcus Aurelius (as he acknowledges), probably through François Cassandre’s “Parallèles Historiques,” 1676, and the translation (from the Spanish of Guevara) titled the “Horloge des Princes,” which Grise and De Heberay published at Lyons in 1575.

12] Aesop and Socrates are usually represented as very ugly.

VIII. — The Old Man and the Three Young Ones.13

A man was planting at fourscore.

Three striplings, who their satchels wore,

‘In building,’ cried, ‘the sense were more;

But then to plant young trees at that age!

The man is surely in his dotage.

Pray, in the name of common sense,

What fruit can he expect to gather

Of all this labour and expense?

Why, he must live like Lamech’s father!

What use for thee, grey-headed man,

To load the remnant of thy span

With care for days that never can be thine?

Thyself to thought of errors past resign.

Long-growing hope, and lofty plan,

Leave thou to us, to whom such things belong.’

‘To you!’ replied the old man, hale and strong;

‘I dare pronounce you altogether wrong.

The settled part of man’s estate

Is very brief, and comes full late.

To those pale, gaming sisters trine,

Your lives are stakes as well as mine.

While so uncertain is the sequel,

Our terms of future life are equal;

For none can tell who last shall close his eyes

Upon the glories of these azure skies;

Nor any moment give us, ere it flies,

Assurance that another such shall rise,

But my descendants, whosoe’er they be,

Shall owe these cooling fruits and shades to me.

Do you acquit yourselves, in wisdom’s sight,

From ministering to other hearts delight?

Why, boys, this is the fruit I gather now;

And sweeter never blush’d on bended bough.

Of this, to-morrow, I may take my fill;

Indeed, I may enjoy its sweetness till

I see full many mornings chase the glooms

From off the marble of your youthful tombs.’

The grey-beard man was right. One of the three,

Embarking, foreign lands to see,

Was drown’d within the very port.

In quest of dignity at court,

Another met his country’s foe,

And perish’d by a random blow.

The third was kill’d by falling from a tree

Which he himself would graft. The three

Were mourn’d by him of hoary head,

Who chisel’d on each monument —

On doing good intent —

The things which we have said.

13] Abstemius.

IX. — The Mice and the Owl.

Beware of saying, ‘Lend an ear,’

To something marvellous or witty.

To disappoint your friends who hear,

Is possible, and were a pity.

But now a clear exception see,

Which I maintain a prodigy —

A thing which with the air of fable,

Is true as is the interest-table.

A pine was by a woodman fell’d,

Which ancient, huge, and hollow tree

An owl had for his palace held —

A bird the Fates14 had kept in fee,

Interpreter to such as we.

Within the caverns of the pine,

With other tenants of that mine,

Were found full many footless mice,

But well provision’d, fat, and nice.

The bird had bit off all their feet,

And fed them there with heaps of wheat.

That this owl reason’d, who can doubt?

When to the chase he first went out,

And home alive the vermin brought,

Which in his talons he had caught,

The nimble creatures ran away.

Next time, resolved to make them stay,

He cropp’d their legs, and found, with pleasure,

That he could eat them at his leisure;

It were impossible to eat

Them all at once, did health permit.

His foresight, equal to our own,

In furnishing their food was shown.

Now, let Cartesians, if they can,

Pronounce this owl a mere machine.

Could springs originate the plan

Of maiming mice when taken lean,

To fatten for his soup-tureen?

If reason did no service there,

I do not know it anywhere.

Observe the course of argument:

These vermin are no sooner caught than gone:

They must be used as soon, ’tis evident;

But this to all cannot be done.

And then, for future need,

I might as well take heed.

Hence, while their ribs I lard,

I must from their elopement guard.

But how? — A plan complete! —

I’ll clip them of their feet!

Now, find me, in your human schools,

A better use of logic’s tools!

Upon your faith, what different art of thought

Has Aristotle or his followers taught?15

14] A bird the Fates, &c. — The owl was the bird of Atropos, the most terrible of the Fates, to whom was entrusted the task of cutting the thread of life.

15] La Fontaine, in a note, asserts that the subject of this fable, however marvellous, was a fact which was actually observed. His commentators, however, think the observers must have been in some measure mistaken, and I agree with them. — Translator. In Fable I., Book X., La Fontaine also argues that brutes have reasoning faculties.


’Tis thus, by crystal fount, my muse hath sung,

Translating into heavenly tongue

Whatever came within my reach,

From hosts of beings borr’wing nature’s speech.

Interpreter of tribes diverse,

I’ve made them actors on my motley stage;

For in this boundless universe

There’s none that talketh, simpleton or sage,

More eloquent at home than in my verse.

If some should find themselves by me the worse,

And this my work prove not a model true,

To that which I at least rough-hew,

Succeeding hands will give the finish due.

Ye pets of those sweet sisters nine,

Complete the task that I resign;

The lessons give, which doubtless I’ve omitted,

With wings by these inventions nicely fitted!

But you’re already more than occupied;

For while my muse her harmless work hath plied,

All Europe to our sovereign yields,16

And learns, upon her battle-fields,

To bow before the noblest plan

That ever monarch form’d, or man.

Thence draw those sisters themes sublime,

With power to conquer Fate and Time.17

16] All Europe to our sovereign yields. — An allusion to the conclusion of the peace of Nimeguen by Louis XIV., in 1678. Louis to some extent negotiated the treaty of this peace in person, and having bought the support of the English king, Charles II. (as shown in the note to Fable XVIII., Book VII.) the terms of the treaty were almost his own. The glory of the achievement procured for Louis the surname of “le Grand.” The king’s praises upon this account are further sounded by La Fontaine in Fable X., Book XII.

17] With the Epilogue to the XIth Book La Fontaine concluded his issue of Fables up to 1678-9. The XIIth and last Book was not added till 1694, the year before the poet’s death. See Translator’s Preface.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57